From the President: Honoring Our Veterans Every Day

Criminal defense lawyers should obtain training on the unique challenges that military veterans face in the criminal justice system.

Access to The Champion archive is one of many exclusive member benefits. It’s normally restricted to just NACDL members. However, this content, and others like it, is available to everyone in order to educate the public on why criminal justice reform is a necessity.

Each November 11, on the anniversary of the armistice that ended the fighting in World War I, we honor our nation’s veterans on what we now call Veterans Day. There are currently more than 22 million living veterans of the U.S. Armed Forces. I am one of them. I served in Vietnam. And I know firsthand the enormous sacrifices young men and women make in service to our nation.

We provide significant training to our servicemen and women for battle and send them to far off lands directly into harm’s way. For many of those fortunate enough to return, however, they carry with them unimaginable trauma. It’s estimated that of the nearly three million who went to Vietnam, up to half returned suffering long-term psychological effects. The challenges faced by returning Vietnam veterans led to hundreds of thousands of my fellow veterans being imprisoned, addicted, or homeless. More than two and one-half million men and women have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is estimated that more than half of a million of those veterans suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, with a similar number having suffered traumatic brain injury. And it is reported that 22 or more U.S. veterans commit suicide each day.

Among the ways in which our nation has failed its veterans is in the criminal justice system. When I assumed the presidency of NACDL this past summer, I made a commitment that this association would expand its advocacy and the commitment of America’s criminal defense bar to our returning veterans. At NACDL’s September mental health symposium in Denver, Colo., more than 400 attendees at this standing-room only event received training on litigating combat veterans’ mental impairment issues in criminal court. And last spring, as I mentioned in my August column, the focus of NACDL’s Executive Committee retreat was on veterans’ issues in the criminal justice system.

At the retreat, we immersed ourselves in this critical subject, with in-depth presentations from some of the nation’s leading figures in this area. The Honorable Robert T. Russell, Jr., who in 2008 created and began presiding over the nation’s first Veterans’ Treatment Court, spoke to us. We also heard from expert defense attorneys in this area — Brockton Hunter, who presented at the Denver symposium, and Ryan Else. Karen Carrington, veterans justice outreach specialist at the Department of Veterans Affairs, also shared her extensive knowledge with the association’s leadership.

NACDL will soon record a similarly exhaustive briefing on issues related to defending veterans who find themselves in the criminal justice system, moderated by NACDL Senior Resource Counsel Vanessa Antoun. This will be the first in my presidential series on this critically important topic. This educational resource will be made available to NACDL members for viewing on the website. I strongly encourage all of my brothers and sisters in the criminal defense bar to avail themselves of this opportunity to get training on the unique challenges that veterans face in the criminal justice system. There could be no better way for Liberty’s Last Champions to honor our veterans this year and every year.

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